PENANG, Apr 3 2020 (IPS) – Martin Khor Kok Peng passed away
just after the end of the first quarter of 2020. He leaves behind an unusually
rich legacy. Atypically for people mainly working in the worldideas, he was
also a very practical and pragmatic activist who successfully built and
sustained several important initiatives which will live on after him.
widely well known,both in Malaysia and internationally, and will be remembered
for his commitment to a variety of causes perhaps best summed up by the concept
of sustainable development, adopted by world leadersat Rio in 1992, and reaffirmed
in Johannesburg in 2002, Rio again in 2012 and, most recently, through the
Sustainable Development Goals declared in 2015.
1951, Martin’s passing less than a year after the demise of his mentor and
close collaborator, the nonagenarian Mahathir contemporary, S M Mohammed Idris,
suggests the end of an era, not only in Malaysia, but also beyond.
Already there are many pronouncements about the end of the
Third World, of the solidarity of the global South, and most recently, about
the related demise of multilateralism, especially as it was transformed in the
1970s when the United Nations committed to a New International Economic Order,
thanks to the G77 caucus of developing countries at the UN.
Paths not taken
on Martin’s career path, one cannot but be struck by the choices he made, and
by paths not taken. Leaving his hometown of Penang, Martin wasa
pre-university classmate of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in
Singapore, before going to Cambridge together.
Later, after a few months in Singapore’s civil service
during 1974-1975, which almost surely would have led him to a cabinet position
in Lee’s cabinet, Martin ‘broke his bond’ to return to Malaysia to start
teaching for a pittance at the Science University of Malaysia (USM).
From there, he began his lifelong engagement with the
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Friends of the Earth, Malaysia (SAM),
collaborating closely with Haji Idris, to wage efforts to protect Penang, and
later the countryagainst ecological and other disasters in the name of
From local to global
international civil society solidarity conference in 1984,Third World Network
(TWN) was born and rapidly developed by Martin to promote collective solidarity
to protectdeveloping countries’ national interests as the global South came
under siege with the neoliberal ascendance of the 1980s.
The South Summit in Kuala Lumpur in 1986 established the
South Commission worked under former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which
recommended establishing the South Centre as an intergovernmental policy
research and analysis institution for developing countries headquartered in
Geneva and chaired by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. Years later, Martin
took over the South Centre in 2009, strengthening its finances, capacities and
impact, by creatively mobilizing resources.
The personal is
widow, Meenakshi Raman was a victim of Malaysian political repression in 1987. But
without personal rancour, Martin worked closely with the Mahathir and
subsequent Malaysian administrations, especially on internationalcauses,
includingtrade, intellectual property, biopiracy and climate change.
Martin touched many, inspiring all by his tireless
commitment. He was often more than happy for others to getcredit for his
discreet efforts behind the scenes with relevant research and skilled drafting.
His persistence was legendary, but everyone knew his efforts were not for
Martin waswell known for his indefatigable energy and meticulousness
in preparing policy and advocacy briefs on many key matters of concern to
developing countries, often working late into the night as necessary. This
reputation gained him access to many government and other leaders.
*Jomo Kwame Sundaram,
a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General
for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing
the Frontiers of Economic Thought.